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Lawyers for Pittsburgh synagogue shooter want to exhume father’s body to prove paternity

Katie Blackley
90.5 WESA

Defense lawyers for the Pittsburgh synagogue shooter have filed a motion to exhume the body of his deceased father in order to prove biological paternity.

In June, Robert Bowers was convicted of 63 counts related to his murder of 11 Jewish worshippers on Oct. 27, 2018. In the current phase of the trial, the jury has to decide whether to recommend a death sentence or life in prison.

The defense lawyers have been questioning witnesses this week about Bowers’ traumatic childhood and his family’s history of mental illness. During that testimony, prosecutors have raised questions about whether Randall Bowers is Robert’s true father. Randall committed suicide when his son was seven years old. Randall had also been diagnosed with a schizophrenia-related illness after a suicide attempt while serving in the military.

“That the government is vigorously contesting, albeit on flimsy evidence, that Randall Bowers is the biological father of Robert Bowers indicates that it too believes that paternity matters and is significant,” the defense motion reads.

Prosecutors raised the issue of whether there was any definitive proof Randall was the father and mentioned that a neighbor had questioned his paternity. In the defense’s motion they cited the testimony of Dr. Katherine Porterfield, a clinical psychologist, who has researched Bowers’ family history. Porterfield said that Bowers’ mom, Barbara Bolt, said Randall was the father. “She spoke many hours with me about Randall Bowers as the father. I actually examined things like birth certificates and checked, okay, well, who’s recognized here as the father,” Porterfield testified.

Porterfield also testified that the neighbor’s statement was not reliable. “I did not believe that a neighbor, who was essentially commenting on [Bolt’s] promiscuity, was probably a great source around paternity,” Porterfield testified.

The defense then asks the court directly to exhume the body in order to test the body’s DNA and prove whether Randall was the father. “Considering that evidence Mr. Bowers is a person with schizophrenia is a key part of his defense in mitigation and the public policy of the Department of Justice against executing individuals with serious mental illness, the interests of justice support ordering the exhumation of Randall Bowers’ body to confirm paternity for Robert Bowers,” the motion reads.

The explosives kid with the strange mom

When Frank Ray moved into an apartment complex in Baldwin around 1987, he had already heard about Robert Bowers, he testified in court on Tuesday. Ray was 13 at the time and Bowers was 15. Bowers was, by reputation, the “kid who blew things up.”

And that was true, Ray said. It didn’t happen every day but quite often the small group of friends who hung out together would get the idea to blow something new up. Maybe it was toys. Once it was a fire extinguisher. Another time, Ray said, they were out at a frozen pond behind the apartment complex. and as Ray ran away from the explosion, he cut his face on “jaggers” in a bush and had to go to school the next day with cuts on his face.

“That was definitely his niche. He gained popularity by blowing things up and having the capability of blowing things up,” Ray said. “I don't think he derived pleasure from it. He just kind of got the reputation, and he was the guy who knew how to do it.”

They never set off an explosive that was intended to hurt anyone, Ray said. Bowers also built his own guns out of bicycle parts and built a cannon out of a tire pump.

Bowers’ mother was always home when the group of friends came inside to hang out during cold weather, Ray said. Bowers’ mom, then known as Barbara Saiter, took hours-long showers with the TV in the doorway. Bolt kept baggies of Oreo cookies around the apartment and made it clear to all of the other kids in the apartments that no one should touch her Oreos.

She was overweight, with labored breathing and a “woe is me” attitude, Ray said.

“It was very uncomfortable being around her,” he said.

Bowers was not a loner even if he was socially awkward, Ray said. Once when the kids were jumping from a rope swing under the Glenwood Bridge, Ray began to have trouble swimming to the shore, he said. Ray said he wasn’t a good swimmer, and one of his friends told him to just “swim harder” before Bowers came up beside him in the water and carried him to the shore as if he was a lifeguard.

“He probably saved my life that day,” Ray said.

The kids who lived at the apartment building liked to ride a dirt bike near the complex. One day, Bowers rode the dirt bike down about a mile down the train tracks to where Ray got out of school, and he and several of the other boys rode back to the apartment together on the bike.

Bowers loved riding so much that he had made plans to buy his own motorcycle, Ray said. Bowers had made a deal with his mother that he could get his own bike if he met certain conditions. Bolt reneged on the deal, however, and Bowers’ disappointment stood out even decades later, Ray said.

“It felt like a heartbreaker to me,” he said. “You were absolutely happy for him that this was going to happen and we would have another dirtbike to jump on, too, so when it didn't happen it sucked for him.”

Bowers got another reputation later in high school: He was the kid who had set himself on fire. There were two rumors about how it happened, Ray said. One rumor was he was trying to kill himself. The other rumor was that he was depressed and drinking grain alcohol in his car, which spilled all over him. When Bowers went to light a cigarette, he accidentally set himself on fire. That was the version that Bowers told him, Ray said.

Former schoolmate Kelly McKinley didn’t know Bowers at all other than possibly having seen him in the hallway at school, she testified via Zoom on Tuesday. But McKinley said she has a big heart, and she asked her mother to take her to the hospital to check on Bowers after she heard what happened to him in the fire. Bowers was totally covered in gauze, except for his inflamed eyes, she said. He couldn’t speak and had to write to her on a white board to communicate. But his hands were burned, too, so he wrote only single words such as “grain” and “alcohol” and “cigarette.”

He also wrote, “I love you” to her on the white board, which caught her off guard, McKinley testified. She was just meeting him and didn’t reciprocate the feelings, she said.

She returned to see him a couple more times, including twice at St. Francis, a psychiatric hospital to which he had been discharged. During McKinley’s first visit there, Bowers asked McKinely to help him escape. Bowers requested a day to go out of the hospital with his mother and McKinley came along .

When his mother stopped the car, Bowers leapt out of one side of the car and McKinley leapt out the other, which was a pretty impulsive thing to do, McKinley said. Bowers called McKinley his girlfriend, according to a police report filed after the escape, but McKinley said that wasn’t true. She saw him only one more time, in her backyard, smoking cigarettes. He still had burns on his face and arms, she said.

“He was very upset, he did not like his father, did not like his mother, he did not like Ray [his mother’s boyfriend] and did not want to be with them or around them,” McKinley said.

Michael McLellan, the final defense witness of the day, said that Bowers was one of his best employees during the year that he supervised him between 2010 and 2011. Bowers worked with two men who had traumatic brain injuries, helping them in their apartments to go about their daily lives. Other employees would have trouble managing the two men’s outbursts, but Bowers managed to keep them in line and get his work done, McLellan said.

One of the men was blind, and the other employees McLellan managed would often just let the blind man walk back and forth in the same room because it was easier for them. But Bowers would take the man on walks throughout the facility because the man loved to push himself and interact with others in the complex. “Rob would always try to go above and beyond,” McLellan said.

Bowers quit his job after a year, but McLellan said Bowers would still call the two men he’d cared for to check on them.

Oliver Morrison